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Gustavo Santaolalla: A Film Composer Finds His Roots

Gustavo Santaolalla is perhaps best known as a producer of film music. His original compositions created the minimalist ambience for Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and three films by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel). For Santaolalla, 57, the accolades speak for themselves — 11 Grammys, two Academy Awards. For the last 20 years, though, the producer has stayed largely behind the scenes.

Santaolalla's latest project, Bajofondo, puts the producer in a place he hasn't been in two decades: onstage. Bajofondo is a studio Frankenstein in which electronic dance music is fused with Latin alternative rock, with echoes of Argentina's and Uruguay's local traditions of tango and milonga in undeniably contemporary music.

I spoke with Santaolalla in August, during a Bajofondo tour for Mar Dulce, the group's newest recording. He also brought his ronroco, a 10-stringed South American equivalent to the ukulele, to the studio to play three songs.

"De Ushuaia a la Quiaca" is the result of a Santaolalla road trip from the northernmost tip of his native Argentina to the southernmost town. You might recognize it from The Motorcycle Diaries. Gustavo wrote "Luna" for his teenage daughter, the song's namesake. It was also featured on a classical crossover recording called "Ayre," from Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov and soprano Dawn Upshaw. "Por la Vuelta" comes from Santaolalla's aptly titled recording, Ronroco.

When you hear Santaolalla play a traditional instrument like the ronroco with a modern impulse, the genetic blueprint behind Bajofondo's electronic tango doesn't seem so foreign. After 40 years of rocking out, Gustavo Santaolalla is simply staying the course.

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Copyright 2008 WBGO

Josh Jackson
Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.